Tuesday, February 21, 2006

No Child Left Behind Killing School Programs
At work, I just finished reading two books on homeschooling children with Asperger Syndrome (in preparation for a conference.) My immediate, and I admit, strange and undoubtedly misguided reaction to this was to think, "I should have children, just so I could educate them properly!" The idea of homeschooling has fascinated me since I was small, and found myself extremely envious of one girl who lived across the street from my elementary school playground. She had been in my class the year before, but then she got to homeschool, and play in her own yard, and not have to go to the school building, (and I'm sure there were other reasons too, but my reasons for so disliking elementary school were never clearly defined.) Everything looked sunnier on her side of the chainlink fence. But I've been trying hard to remind myself that a conviction that I could do a better job than the public school system is not actually a very good reason to want to have children.

And then I read this, written by an acquaintance who teaches 7th and 8th grade English in a New Mexico middle school, in response to a NYTimes article on how NCLB tutoring services are going unused:
I just have to say that this makes me extremely angry. Under NCLB, schools are not allowed to provide the tutoring programs themselves (though this article says a few school districts have appealed that), allowing students only to go to state-sanctioned private tutors like Sylvan. Because of this, our school's groundbreaking, highly-effective after school program was cancelled, the money taken away and given to a few students so that they could get private tutoring. The problems with this are many: 1) the closest private tutoring companies are in Albuquerque, more than 40 miles away, and NCLB doesn't provide for transportation -- and a large number of families with students eligible for tutoring are one-car families, who literally cannot drive their students an hour to Albuquerque just to be tutored; 2) programs like Sylvan are far more expensive than the running costs of the school-based tutoring program, so the state/Title I money helps far fewer students; 3) for-profit tutoring programs have a vested interest in student growth, because if the students are not showing growth, the parents are not likely to continue paying for the service (even if the money comes from the gov't, parents still have to pay for gas money to get to ABQ), so private-tutoring companies (in my own professional experience) will inflate records of student growth, effectively lying to parents and students about progress that does not then manifest itself in the school setting; 4) by insisting that private tutoring companies can do a better job than the teachers, the federal government is further discrediting teachers, sowing ideas of mistrust and suspicion in the minds of parents and legislators, further hurting the profession by chipping away at any sort of rewards for teachers, whether they be emotional (respect) or financial. It's actually very clever -- this legislation actually says -- in a very sneaky, underhanded way -- that the government has more faith in private, corporate education than in public education, thus furthering its agenda to bring the public school system down and replace it with "entreprenurial" schooling, private/corporate schools unchecked by Constitutional Law.

And that's reason #2,986 that I hate No Child Left Behind.
This does not help my mood.

Tonight, I go to tutor in a nearby low-cost housing development that has an apartment set aside for community services, such as the after-school tutoring program. (There used to be at least five more of these programs set up in the Raleigh area, but this is the only one still running. The others ran out of volunteers and funding.) My hope is that this will make me feel better, that I'm actually doing something useful, which it usually does, but it also makes me upset to see so many children performing at below grade level, already being left behind in elementary school because the teacher can't spend as much time individualizing lessons as needed in this case, and because not all parents can take several hours every night to re-explain everything to their children in ways they can understand.

In the homeschooling books, the author mentioned that when schooling her child at home, she and many other parents had found that it really on takes 2-4 hours of "schooling" per day to equal and surpass what the children were getting in the public schools. I commented on what a sad commentary I thought that was to a friend, and he responded that this shouldn't be a surprise, since the main point of public school is really socialization, not academics. While this may be true, it is so shockingly opposite of my own conception of what school should be that I simply cannot reconcile the idea.

Don't get me wrong, I am fully in favor of the ideal of a free and equal public school experience for all children, but lately, I'm having a hard time finding a lot of faith for our system as it stands.

I have mixed feelings about home schooling, because I have seen it produce very mixed results. I mean, it works great if you have a capable person willing and able to stay in the home all day to educate the available children in the material at hand... but the pedagogical quality of parents as educators varies greatly by subject - as does the intentionality behind a home-schooled education. Maybe it is just living in the South, but at one end of the spectrum I've seen home-schoolers who were already working their way past calculus in the seventh grade but who had no literary experience outside of the King James variant of the Bible - sitting alongside functional illiterates whose grasp of basic mathematics had failed to advance beyond multiplication and division by the eighth grade - but they could play the guitar okay. A public education may not always have room for the excellence that a personalized education might provide, but at least it can provide some consistancy - and is far more likely to meet some of those 'national standards' proposed by the NCLB act.

Furthermore, what prevents home schooling from occurring as 'supplemental tutoring' when the child returns from said public school and parents return from work? I believe it could be effectively argued that my sister and I benefitted from a highly informal "experiential education" at our parents' side. On weekends and evenings we were made to explore 'cultural events' or zoos and museums. One was expected to read newspapers or books and films in order make intelligent conversation about current events. There were math problem sets to be solved or personal essays to be written when we misbehaved. Dinner table discussion ranged from exotic disease to classical literature.

My friends of Korean and Japanese descent often found themselves attending an extra day of school on Saturday that connected them to their cultural heritage - and what good Christian child is unfamiliar with the concept of Sunday school? Any good religious education should provide a young human being with the valuable skillsets for literacy, analysis, and social expression.

Education is where you make it happen, so I have to wonder: why doesn't everyone live like this?
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